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A young Colombian man immigrates to the United States in hopes of achieving the “American Dream” but is awakened by a much harsher reality.
According to the New Oxford American Dictionary, the “American Dream” is “the ideal that every U.S. citizen should have an equal opportunity to achieve success and prosperity through hard work, determination, and initiative.” While it can be rather simple to picture immigrants doing just that, it is easy to forget just how traumatizing the path to achieve this goal is, which oftentimes results in the separation of families.
Originally from Colombia, José, 53, has been living in the United States since 1998. A mechanic in his home country, José barely earned enough money to feed his two daughters, which forced him to make the painful decision to leave them behind to find a job in the United States. Full of energy and optimism, José left home in search of the “American Dream.” Little did he know, the path towards this dream was not a dream at all. After migrating, he found a job as a construction worker.
“The hardest part about leaving my family in Colombia was to see how small my daughters were,” José reveals. Lizeth, his oldest daughter, was four years old when he left, while his youngest, Paola, was only three. José, like other parents who have emigrated in an attempt to secure their family’s survival, was forced to miss out on his children’s childhoods. Years later, he began to wonder if it was worth losing the love and affection of his daughters for the sake of achieving the “American Dream.” “Children not only expect the material things and money, once a father loses their affection from lack of contact … they grow up with lack of parental love,” says José.
Fear of deportation is just another tragedy immigrants have to face, regardless of how many years they’ve already lived in their new home country. José, who currently resides in Orlando, Florida, has a third daughter who is 16 and suffers from Autism. When considering the possibility of deportation, he explains, “I hope I can be with my youngest daughter until she can become independent and take care of herself before I get deported.”
Disturbed by the idea of her father being jailed, Lizeth expresses, “It would affect my little sister a lot, and I would not like to see him in jail not even for one second … he is not a bad person. He was just trying to give us the best he could.”
According to the American Immigration Council website, 2009-2013 census data shows that 4.1 million U.S. citizens under the age of 18 live with at least one undocumented parent. Also, approximately half a million children with U.S. citizenship experienced the apprehension, detention, and deportation of at least one parent between 2011 and 2013, based on estimates using Immigration and Customs Enforcement’s (ICE) data.
After Lizeth and Paola’s mother married an American citizen and were sponsored to live in the U.S., they were finally reunited with their father after 15 long years. Full of happiness, José was ready to continue the life he had left in Colombia. However, his dreams of reunification were not how he thought they would be. It was not until two years later that his daughter Lizeth decided to get to know him again. Paola, who is not in communication with José, explains “It is not that I hate him…he is my father, and I love him, but it does not come from my heart to call him or be with him.”
The absence of their father, the lack of communication and physical contact, resulted in what had seemed like the loss of their father. “My mom had a really important role in my life.She was the best mom and dad I could have. I always missed celebrating Father’s Day or my dad dancing with me in my quince años, at my graduation or even my first communion” says Lizeth. For Paola, both she and José will be forever haunted knowing he was unable to walk his little girl down the aisle.
“In some way, I am just learning to know about him,” says Lizeth after two years of living with José. “We are just building trust. Although, sometimes, it is really awkward.”
Paola declined to comment when asked about her feelings toward her father. She did recall him saying he was going to the store and that he never came back. She says, “I know he worked really hard to give us everything back in Colombia. But he made a lot of mistakes without thinking about the family he left behind.” Paola explains that she is not concerned about herself or Lizeth since they are of age to make their own decisions. She does show sympathy for her stepsister, explaining, “She would suffer a lot. My sister needs special care, and she is too attached to her father. I cannot imagine how hard it would be for her, especially at her age…it would be the same story with me and Lizeth just that, in reverse.”
The American Council Website states that a “2010 study of immigration-related parental arrests (at home or worksites) found that most children experienced at least four adverse behavioral changes in the six months following a raid or arrest.” Some of these changes could cause children to suffer from eating or sleeping disorders and experience mental health problems including depression, anxiety, and severe psychological distress such as aggression.
Like some immigrants, José is unable to obtain citizenship because he entered the United States under another person’s identity, which is considered a crime. Due to his undocumented status, José was not able to save money over the years or have access to a pension fund after working in the U.S. for nearly two decades. To make matters worse, he is the only family member who has an income since his current wife and the mother of his third daughter cannot work due to physical limitations. He is also not eligible for health insurance and has no financial support in the event of a work injury.
All José wanted was for his daughters to have better opportunities than his own, and now that they have grown up, he feels that the only obligation he has right now is to his youngest daughter. With a defeated face, he sighs and says, “there are scars that have been left, and I do not know if all this effort was worth having lost the childhood of my daughters.”